If the last game between the Patriots and Seahawks wasn’t the moment when we all realized Seattle was a force to be reckoned with, it wasn’t far off. Seattle’s 24-23 win over New England in October 2012 didn’t perfectly kick off a period of prosperity for the Seahawks, who lost their next two games, but it did serve as a sign that the Seahawks could beat anybody in football. It’s an important document in understanding where the Seahawks were and how far they’ve come, especially with regard to Russell Wilson, who was only starting his sixth NFL game. And while it’s probably best remembered now for the epic postgame trash-talking session from Richard Sherman, the game itself was a wildly exciting affair that could offer some tactical hints at how each team will try to beat the other next Sunday.
It’s fair to say the jury was still out on Seattle when New England rolled into town that afternoon. Coming off a 7-9 season, the Seahawks had started 3-2 under a cloud of controversy, as one of their two home wins was the Fail Mary victory over the Packers in a game arguably gifted to them by the replacement officials. They had also beaten the Cowboys at home, with their lone road win coming against the middling Panthers by four points. The game against the Patriots would mark the third consecutive home game in which the Seahawks were considered underdogs by the Vegas line at kickoff.1
The Seahawks, four-point underdogs that day, have been favored in every one of their 25 ensuing home games.
The Patriots were seen as a safer bet, but they had also gotten off to a slow start. While they had comfortably beaten the Bills and Titans and seen off a returning Peyton Manning in a 31-21 home victory in Week 5, the Patriots had also lost to the Cardinals and Ravens in consecutive weeks. Granted, those losses were by a combined three points and might have involved a field goal that didn’t actually go through the uprights, but they entered the game with the same 3-2 record as the Seahawks.
Of course, as you probably already know, these two teams do not have the same rosters they had for that 2012 matchup. The difference is actually probably bigger than you think; just 23 of the 44 starters and 41 of the 92 players who were on active rosters for that game are likely to suit up in Super Bowl XLIX. That starts with Brandon Browner, who moved from Seattle to New England and is the lone player to cross the divide between these two teams in the two and a half years since the last contest.
While the Seahawks were starting all of the Legion of Boom Mark I in their secondary, they looked dramatically different elsewhere. All four of their starters on the defensive line are either gone or on injured reserve. The right side of their offensive line has turned over. And while everybody who ran the ball for the Seahawks in the first game is still on the roster, six of the seven wide receivers or tight ends who received a target will not play in the rematch. Doug Baldwin, who caught two passes for 74 yards and a score, is the only exception. Braylon Edwards, of all people, caught his final NFL touchdown pass in this game.
The Patriots can play that game. Aaron Hernandez caught a touchdown pass, so there’s that. With Julian Edelman and Michael Hoomanawanui both inactive for the 2012 game, the only receiver who caught a pass from Tom Brady in that game and will suit up for the Super Bowl is Rob Gronkowski. Brady’s passes instead went to Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Hernandez, and Danny Woodhead. And while the Seattle secondary is mostly the same, New England’s isn’t; in 2012, Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington started at cornerback and Tavon Wilson and Patrick Chung started at safety. Chung has gone and come back in the meantime, while Wilson hasn’t started a game since New England’s 2012 bye. He figured heavily into the finish back then.
Before that stunning conclusion, though, the Patriots dominated most of this game. I think most independent observers rewatching the game would say New England was the better team. It led for the vast majority of the contest and had a win expectancy of 95 percent with as little as eight minutes left. The Seahawks were competitive, but the Patriots appeared to be a step ahead for most of the game. And it wasn’t just that the Patriots were moving the ball effectively on offense. It was how they were doing it.
Seattle’s dominant secondary had been together for only a season, but it was already receiving recognition as one of football’s best units. Three of Seattle’s four starters in the defensive backfield had made it to the Pro Bowl in 2011, and the lone holdout was the rookie fifth-rounder who won the job in midseason — Richard Sherman. This game against the Patriots marked Sherman’s 16th professional start, giving him a full NFL season as a starting cornerback under his belt. While its offense had struggled to start the season, Seattle was happily relying on its secondary; the recently nicknamed Legion of Boom had allowed the sixth-best passer rating (72.4) and QBR (40.3) in football during the first five games of the year.
That did not stop the Patriots. Running an offense that Sherman would deride after the game as gimmicky, Brady & Co. went with a no-huddle attack that repeatedly targeted the weak links in the Seattle pass defense. Brady threw a staggering 58 passes that Sunday, which was a career high at the time.2 Against the most fearsome pass defense of this generation and with a lead for virtually the entire contest, the Patriots came out and threw more than twice as frequently as they ran.
He topped it two months later by throwing 65 passes in New England’s 41-34 loss to San Francisco, a figure that still stands as his career high.
They did it because it worked, especially during the first three quarters. Brady went 36-of-58 for 395 yards, a performance marred only by his fourth quarter, in which he went 5-of-13 for 81 yards. Sherman suggested afterward that the Seahawks made adjustments to slow down the New England attack as the game went along, and Seattle did, but it would have been downright stupid to not make any changes. Brady was carving the Seahawks up, and he’ll likely try to approach things the same way in the Super Bowl.
What the Patriots did isn’t that different from what the Ravens did to try to attack them in the divisional round two weeks ago. Seattle’s strengths are maximized when their cornerbacks can dictate the physical matchups at the line of scrimmage, so the Patriots denied them the opportunity with motion and movement. New England repeatedly stacked its receivers in the slot and in reduced splits to prevent Sherman and Browner from locking up the likes of Lloyd and Hernandez on the sideline.
That plays into New England’s hands in a few different ways. Sherman and Browner (and Browner’s replacement, Byron Maxwell) prefer to play outside the hashmarks, where they can use the sideline as leverage in covering routes. Moving receivers into the slot either forces the Seahawks to move their cornerbacks inside or cover the New England receivers with linebackers and safeties, which is a victory in itself. If those defenders tried to jam Brady’s receivers at the line, many of the route combinations the Patriots ran had natural picks that created easy throws. And when the Seahawks dropped into zones and tried to react, Brady repeatedly found open receivers on hitches, drag routes, and crossing routes for efficient gains.
Here’s a sample. The Patriots ran this on third-and-10 for a relatively easy conversion to Welker for a new set of downs. Watch Welker motion behind Hernandez in the slot:
This is basically a pick play, albeit a totally legal one. Hernandez runs a clear-out route designed to occupy nickelback Marcus Trufant, who suggests before the snap that he’s in coverage on Welker by following his motion. Even if Trufant is in zone, Hernandez’s routine as the first man through the wall is enough to clear a passing lane for Welker. The Seahawks have an exotic front on display, with three of their four rushers on the left side of the offensive line, but Brady’s impeccable ability to set his protection and the minuscule amount of time needed to get the route open make this pitch-and-catch.
There are a few ways to combat this sort of stuff, but the Patriots were able to take advantage of some of Seattle’s likely responses. Earlier in the game, with Earl Thomas looking into the backfield in the hopes of blowing up one of those underneath throws, Welker had sold him a dummy and ran right by him for a 46-yard score. As the game went on, when the Seahawks went to more man coverage against the bunch formations, Brady identified the mismatch on the opposite side and threw slants to Gronkowski and Lloyd against Kam Chancellor and Browner, often as part of a slant-flat or flat-hitch combination of routes.
The early touchdown pass to Welker was crucial because it put the fear of getting beat deep in the Seattle secondary. It was bested on a long throw only once more the rest of the way, when Daniel Fells wheeled out of a crowd on a play-action pass and beat Chancellor for 35 yards. Brady’s longest completed pass otherwise was a 23-yard curl to Lloyd on a rare pass in Sherman’s direction. While Brady went at Sherman early on a go route to Welker3 and had a couple of passes knocked away, the Lloyd completion was his most successful pass against Sherman that day.
That’s right: Wes Welker burned Earl Thomas for a long touchdown and the Patriots split him out and tried to have him burn Richard Sherman for a long touchdown. This was a big, brave day.
Brady later challenged Sherman again and didn’t live to tell the tale. The Seahawks showed a rare look with Sherman lined up against Deion Branch in the slot inside of K.J. Wright, who was split out wide against Stevan Ridley. Brady saw this as an opportunity to target Branch going up the seam, and while he tried to look Thomas off long enough to create a plausible throw, there was nothing there. Brady ended up forcing a throw that Sherman easily picked off, ending a promising Patriots drive in Seattle territory.
And when the Seahawks weren’t afraid of getting beat deep, Brady struggled to find his mark. He was a mess in the red zone during this game, sailing an interception on what should have been an easy completion to Welker on a shallow cross while repeatedly forcing passes to a well-covered Gronkowski. Brady could have easily thrown three or four interceptions in the red zone alone during this game. He also picked up a critical intentional grounding penalty on the 3-yard line with six seconds left in the first half that cost the Patriots a chip-shot field goal because of a 10-second runoff.
In all, New England made six trips into the red zone and came away with just 16 points, an average of 2.7 points per trip. Its lone red zone touchdown came on a third-down fade to Hernandez against backup safety Jeron Johnson. The Patriots had the league’s best red zone offense that year (averaging 5.6 points per trip), so getting stopped in that part of the field was not a common occurrence for them. If they want to beat the Seahawks next Sunday, they can’t average less than a field goal per trip inside the 20.4
The Patriots ranked sixth in red zone offense this year, with 5.1 points per possession.
While Sherman contends that the Seahawks made adjustments, the biggest change they made was having Chris Clemons whip Nate Solder in the fourth quarter. The Patriots were very comfortable leaving Brady in an empty backfield throughout the game, trusting that the offensive line would hold up long enough for a receiver to get open.
In the final period, though, Clemons began to take over. While he extended a Patriots drive with a roughing-the-passer penalty, Clemons made up for it by jumping the snap count perfectly on third-and-1 and forcing Brady to step up in the pocket, creating an awkward throwing lane on the shallow cross to Welker that Brady sailed for an interception.
After scoring drives by both teams left the Patriots up 23-17, Clemons again stepped up. With the Patriots driving and just 4:52 to go, a Clemons bull rush knocked Solder into Brady and forced another intentional grounding penalty, forcing the Patriots into third-and-20 and an eventual punt. And then, on New England’s final, desperate drive, a ridiculous Clemons spin move flummoxed Solder so badly that the overmatched left tackle ended up jumping on Brady’s back and sacking the quarterback himself. (Clemons took the credit.)
So much of the game plan the Patriots implemented that day depended upon their ability to keep pressure off Brady. Their offensive linemen simply needed to win one-on-one, and they did until the fourth quarter, when Solder was picked out for target practice. Clemons is gone, but Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett are likely an upgrade on the line Seattle had in 2012. New England’s Super Bowl losses to the Giants in the 2007 and 2011 playoffs owe a lot to the front four of the Giants repeatedly winning one-on-one up front, and Denver’s game plan was undone by what Seattle’s front four was able to do in last year’s Super Bowl. If the Patriots can go with an empty backfield and still keep Brady upright, they can stretch the Seattle defense, even with their current receivers. If they can’t, it might very well be enough to cost them the game on its own.
It’s harder to say what each team’s performance on the other side of the ball in the 2012 game might augur for the Super Bowl because the difference in personnel and style is far starker. The New England defense barely resembles the unit that will suit up next Sunday, with Chung being the only player likely to start in the same position. McCourty is now a safety, Arrington will be the nickelback, and Tavon Wilson is a special-teamer.
Chung will see more snaps in the Super Bowl than he did during the conference championship because of what Seattle does best. The Patriots went with plenty of four-cornerback, one-safety sets against the Colts because they were totally unconcerned with the Indianapolis running game. That obviously won’t be the case against the Seahawks and Marshawn Lynch, whom the Patriots did a good job of stopping in 2012. Lynch was a nonfactor, carrying the ball 15 times for 41 yards.
Russell Wilson also didn’t do much damage running, producing just 17 yards on five carries. Part of that came down to this being a meaningful game for another reason: According to ESPN Stats & Information, the game against the Patriots was the first time the Seahawks ran the read-option. They didn’t bust it out until the fourth quarter, at which point they pulled it out two times for 11 yards, including a big third-and-1 conversion from Lynch.
From that point forward for the rest of 2012, they would run the zone-read 52 times for 370 yards, an average of 7.1 yards per carry. This year, Stats & Info’s numbers have Seattle running the read-option 177 times for a league-high 983 yards, an average of nearly 5.6 yards per carry. And that doesn’t include the playoffs, during which Seattle relied heavily on the read-option during its frantic comeback over the Packers.
This was a very important game for Wilson, who hadn’t established a firm grip on the starting job in Seattle. He was only two weeks removed from an ugly three-interception day in St. Louis, a game in which the Rams successfully clogged up his throwing lanes and took advantage of his lack of height. Through the first five games of the season, Wilson’s QBR was a dismal 39.7, the 28th-best rate in the league.
He wasn’t treated as the longtime starter by the broadcasting crew of Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts, either. When Wilson underthrew a wheel route to an open Baldwin to end a Seahawks drive in the third quarter, Eagle and Fouts openly wondered if the Patriots defense had gotten in Wilson’s head before retelling a quote from Pete Carroll. “Look, Wilson was so dynamic in the competition in preseason, he won the job,” Carroll apparently told Eagle. “In my mind, it’s still a competition. We’ll see how things develop.” Perhaps that was just an example of Carroll’s emphasis on constant competition, but the crew noted that Matt Flynn’s elbow was finally healthy and suggested he would be a factor in the starting race.
Like last week’s win over the Packers, the Seahawks came back to win the 2012 Patriots game with two fourth-quarter touchdown drives after showing little on offense all day. Wilson deserved a lot of credit for what he did in the fourth quarter of the Packers game, and in the Patriots game he did enough to earn credit for the victory. While he would play brutally the following week in a close loss to the 49ers before taking a leap forward, this was the game that ended any speculation that the Seahawks were about to consider benching him.
With the Seahawks down 23-10, Wilson started a critical fourth-quarter drive by throwing a deep post past a mesmerized Sterling Moore to Golden Tate for 51 yards. Brandon Spikes added 15 more yards on the play for roughing Wilson up, meaning the ball moved from the Seattle 17 to the New England 17 in one play. The drive stalled there, leaving Wilson with a must-have fourth-and-3 in the red zone. The throw won’t make Wilson’s highlight reel, and the play arguably could have been waved off for offensive pass interference, but the ball found its way into Edwards’s hands for a 10-yard score.
The Patriots went three-and-out and punted with 2:38 and three timeouts left, at which point Wilson delivered the game winner. After a Leon Washington punt return brought the ball to the Seattle 43-yard line, Wilson ran for nine yards on his first read-option keeper as a pro, with Lynch plunging through on another two plays later to move the chains. On the next play, Sidney Rice torched poor Tavon Wilson with a double-move, and Russell Wilson hit Rice in stride on the post route for the game-winning 46-yard score.
It wasn’t a particularly efficient game for Wilson, but he repeatedly found ways to beat the Patriots downfield for big plays. A couple of those throws went to Baldwin, who badly beat Arrington for two long catches early in a matchup that is unlikely to recur Sunday. (My suspicion is that Darrelle Revis will line up on Baldwin, with Arrington on Jermaine Kearse.) Rice even threw a deep pass, drawing a 40-yard pass interference penalty when Chung got lost covering Tate downfield and bumped into the now-departed receiver without turning around to play the football.
What might be stickier this time around, then, is how the Patriots try to spy on Wilson as a runner and scrambler. They had different personnel in 2012, of course, but what was notable is that they changed concepts throughout the game. There were plays when it looked like they had Rob Ninkovich or Jermaine Cunningham (who started and played virtually every snap) as the lone man spying Wilson. Other times, they applied a tighter squeeze. Take a look at this play from the final drive of the first half:
Is that three Patriots defenders spying Wilson? One of them is Vince Wilfork, who isn’t about to catch Wilson, but when his rush doesn’t get home, he backs off and occupies the middle of the field to prevent Wilson from stepping up in the pocket. Spikes (55) and Cunningham (96) appear to be moving side-to-side with Wilson too. It’s really a two-man rush with three spies, and it forces a desperate incomplete checkdown.
The Patriots did get a nice game from Chandler Jones, an incident they would love to see recur in the rematch. Jones had two sacks, including a strip-sack of Wilson when the Seahawks tried to block him with tight end Zach Miller. New England recovered two of the three fumbles in this game and got free field position when Seattle punter Jon Ryan couldn’t handle a snap and had to go down for a loss, albeit to set up the drive before halftime that Brady ended with the intentional grounding.
The other Jones sack was perhaps more interesting. The Patriots lined up Cunningham at end outside left tackle Russell Okung and put Jones inside over the shoulder of left guard James Carpenter, who was the clear weak link in the Seattle offensive line at the time. Jones badly beat Carpenter for the sack. It remains to be seen whether the Patriots will kick Jones inside for a few key passing downs again or if they’ll line him up on the opposite side, where he could be up against backup right tackle Alvin Bailey if Justin Britt can’t go.
It’s always tough to take a previous matchup between two teams and use it to predict what will happen in a subsequent game. It’s even harder when you’re talking about a game that happened two years ago, with different players in the same laundry. But there are so many critical members of the cast still around that you can make some solid observations about what you might see next Sunday. And if the Super Bowl is as good as the 2012 game was, well, it’ll be worth the nine days we still have to wait.